Study identifies prevalence of rickets among 16th century sailors
New laser technology investigates bones of sailors who perished on Henry VIII’s ship
The bones of sailors who sailed on Henry VIII’s Mary Rose ship have been analysed at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital (RNOH) in Stanmore, North London as part of a study by University College London (UCL), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and The Mary Rose Trust.
The Mary Rose was King Henry VIII’s flagship before it sank in battle on the 19th July 1545, resulting in over four hundred men losing their lives. The environment of the Solent meant that the ship and the sailors were preserved in silt, which helped to keep them in remarkably good condition.
The sailors’ bones were analysed with Raman spectroscopy, a pioneering, non-destructive laser technology, to identify evidence of bone disease. The application of Raman spectroscopy to the study of bone diseases in historical populations was novel and the work has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Two sets of tibia bones were obtained from The Mary Rose Trust, bones that appeared anatomically healthy and bones that were abnormal in shape. The deformations in the abnormal bones were suspected to be due to a metabolic bone disease such as rickets (the poor diet of the average person in the 1500s would have increased the prevalence of rickets). The results of the Raman study confirmed that the abnormally shaped bones did in fact have chemical abnormalities.
The Raman technique shows potential as a tool for understanding the presence and prevalence of metabolic bone disease in historical populations and may have a place in modern-day detection of the condition, with reports earlier this year warning that Britain is seeing a return of Tudor-era diseases.
Dr. Jemma Kerns, RAMAN Clinical Study Manager at UCL and RNOH, one of the scientists who conducted the study, commented: “This is the first time that this laser technology has been used to study bone disease in archaeological human bone. We have identified chemical changes in the bones, without damaging them. There is strong evidence to suggest that many of the sailors had suffered from childhood rickets and we hope to apply the Raman technique to the study of modern day rickets.”
Alex Hildred, Curator of Human Remains at the Mary Rose Trust added; “The Mary Rose Trust has the responsibility for the remains of over 179 individuals who perished with the ship. Their provenance is absolute; they represent the crew of an English warship in July 1545. The human remains have potential to make a contribution to the public through research, education, display and interpretation. Their use to confirm the presence and prevalence of metabolic bone disease in the 16th century is one of these contributions.”
The RAMAN study, led by Professor Allen Goodship, was funded as part of a £1.7 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The bones were measured in a laser facility at the Institute of Orthopaedics UCL. The ‘normal’ bones that were analysed as part of the study were supplied by the Vesalius Centre at the University of Bristol.